In John Ford’s 1962 late career masterpiece, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” there’s a line quoted by the town’s newspaper editor, Maxwell Scott, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And that’s just what John Ford was best at, recording the west not as it was, but as more of a mystical fable of how we want the west to be best remembered. Ford and his screenwriters play loose with the facts, still it is one of the most visually stunning of westerns, a black and white canvas of the west as it never existed, but we all wish it had.
Earp’s career has been idolized, revised and sanitized many times over. He was only a lawman for about eight years, and in Tombstone, it was Wyatt’s brother Virgil who was the Marshal with Wyatt and Virgil his deputies.(1) Not to bore you dear reader with the facts, but neither Doc Holliday nor Pop Clanton died during the short thirty second battle. Wyatt actually met Doc Holliday in Dodge City back in 1876 five years before the O.K. Corral shootings. When they left for Tombstone, John “Doc” Holliday followed. If you want a somewhat more realistic, though still not totally accurate, version of what happened back in 1881 at the O.K. Corral and its aftermath, check out John Sturges “Hour of the Gun.” Oh yeah, a couple of other things, when Wyatt visits the grave of the youngest Earp, James who was killed by the Clanton’s early in the film, his tombstone reads he died in 1882 instead of ’81 when the shootout occurred. And as for Clementine Carter, well she is a purely fictional character.
There have been more films about Wyatt Earp than there have been about all of our Presidents collectively. Name a few? Okay, “Wichita,” (Joel McCrea) “Wyatt Earp” (Kevin Costner), “Tombstone,” (Kurt Russell) “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (Burt Lancaster), “Hour of the Gun” (James Garner), the last two directed by John Sturges, “Frontier Marshal” (Randolph Scott) “Winchester ’73” (Will Geer) and Ford’s final film “Cheyenne Autumn” (James Stewart). I could go on, but you get the idea.
As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Wyatt Earp is a cool, stoic character who manages to stand apart from the conflicts and inner turmoil surrounding him even when his brothers are murdered. Oh, he wants revenge but this Earp is not going off half cocked. As the film opens, Wyatt and his brothers are driving a herd of cows west to California with hopes of selling them. They run into Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and Ike (Grant Withers) his oldest boy, who act friendly and invite the strangers to head over to the big city of Tombstone and get a taste of the wide open town where everything is available. The Earp’s take him up on that leaving youngest brother James behind at the camp.
As the three brothers ride into town, gunshots ring out wildly, drunks are everywhere. “What kind of a town is this?” Wyatt cries out in disgust after almost getting his head blow off while getting a shave. No one in town, including the sheriff, wants to confront the drunk, an Indian, so Wyatt takes it upon himself climbing up to a second story window, knocking out the drunk and tossing him out into the street. He’s offered the job of marshal but he turns them down. After all, he’s only passing through.
When Wyatt and his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, arrive back at their campsite, they find the cattle gone and kid brother James dead. The Earp’s were just passing through, only now it’s turned personal. Wyatt takes the job as Marshal of Tombstone with his brothers as his deputies.
The Earp’s are not the only outsiders in Tombstone, there’s also Doc Holliday, Victor Mature in one of his finest performances. Doc left the South in hopes of finding escape from his demons of drink and gambling only to find those same demons along with whores like Chihuahua, a hot tempered, fiery Linda Darnell, following him. Sure Doc controls a lot of what goes on in Tombstone but his demons are never far away. Tubercular, a sap for a bad woman, he tosses away the innocent and virginal Clementine Carter (Kathy Downs) who has come west to be with him. Holliday is a classic loser who will get double crossed by his lover when she two times him with Billy Clanton (John Ireland). Both eventually seek redemption, Chihuahua by telling the truth and Doc by attempting to operate and save her life after having been shot by Billy. Both fail. While Wyatt and Doc are enemies, there is a certain respect that builds between the two men. Wyatt knows Doc is dying despite his talk of leaving Tombstone with Chihuahua and heading down to Mexico. Wyatt knows Doc ain’t goin’ nowhere, except to Boot Hill.
Fonda’s Earp is more of a straight arrow who eventually, if shyly, hooks up with darling Clementine. With the town finally getting some law and order, the town folk want to complete the building of the church. They hold a dance and Wyatt timidly escorts Clementine to the celebration. When he finally gets the courage to ask her to dance, everyone steps back, giving room for the Marshal and his lady friend to dance. Fonda did a similar high step dance in “Young Mr. Lincoln” which Ford liked so much he memorably incorporated it again into this film.
During the climatic shootout at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt walks cautiously down the empty street, Ford’s camera at a low angle, the scene is superbly shot. The lack of a soundtrack adds to the tense nature of the entire sequence. It’s also one of the most violent scenes Ford has ever filmed. Considering this is 1946, the killings are brutal and daring for its times.
The women in this film are either sweet, virginal innocent good women like Clementine or ethnic trampy bar girls (prostitutes) like Chihuahua who despite her love for Doc, proves herself to be no good and must pay for her sins by dying. In Ford’s old world structure, for women, there is no in between, you are either a saint or a whore.
The film is visually stunning with Ford’s majestic scenes of Monument Valley overpowering almost everything else at times (cinematography by Joe McDonald). You can watch and enjoy this film just for the amazing photography.
But there are also the performances, Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp is charming, fascinating and unpredictably nasty when need be. Fonda was cast early on, almost from the time Ford agreed to do the film. Victor Mature was not the first choice for Doc Holliday but his dark brooding good looks won over the doubters and gave way to a memorable performance. Not to be forgotten is the fabulously devious work of Walter Brennan in one of his nastiest, most vicious roles ever as Old Man Clanton. He almost steals the film. As an example, there is one terrific scene, about 39 minutes into the story. Wyatt and the Clanton boys are in a saloon. Wyatt shoots one of the Clanton’s and holds a gun on the others. Old Man Clanton comes in and apologizes to the Marshal for the incident. After Wyatt walks out of the bar, Pop Clanton whips his boys viciously telling them after he’s finished the beating, “next time you pull a gun, kill a man!” You don’t get fatherly advice like that every day! Brennan and Ford did not get along and Walter would never work with Ford again.
Supporting cast members include Ford favorite, Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad to Fonda’s Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”, John Ireland, Grant Withers, Alan Mowbray and Roy Roberts.
One of the more surprising factors in the film is how Wyatt, and Morgan, just pack up and leave Tombstone after the big shootout. He not only leaves the town he just tamed but also leaves behind the lovely Clementine who he obviously has feelings for. In this respect, one could say Ford’s Wyatt Earp is a cinematic relative to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards (The Searchers). Wyatt, like Ethan, is uncomfortable in a formal ‘society’ structure. He is too much of a loner or an outsider to settle down and must move on.
(1) Ford’s film is based on Stuart Lake’s 1931 book, “Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal,” considered to be the source for the legend and myths that has been built around the life and times of Wyatt Earp. Lake apparently interviewed Earp before he died in 1929. Subsequently, it is believed Earp contributed to the creating of his own myth. Lake’s book was also the main source for the 1939 Allan Dwan film, “Frontier Marshal” starring Randolph Scott as Earp. In a bit of a strange nod to the Dwan film, Ford used actor Charles Stevens as the drunken Indian Earp subdues early in the film. Stevens played the same role in the Dwan film seven years earlier. Stevens was also reputedly the grandson of real life Apache chief Geronimo